My buddy Ryan Maloy and I were running my boat back up the Aucilla River, hoping to make the boat ramp before darkness set in. It was late in the afternoon, and the tide had gone out some, making the river a bit more treacherous than usual. We were tired, salty and grimy from a satisfying day spent catching several redfish, with a couple of trout and flounder thrown in the mix.
As we rounded the last bend though, we stopped to admire the view of the setting sun in the western sky. The palms were lit like golden candles against the horizon, mullet were jumping, and birds of all different species were winging past us. It was then that I was reminded how special this place is, even without the good fishing it offers.
The Aucilla River originates in Thomas County as a small stream one could walk across without wetting their ankles.
According to his wonderful book, “In Search of the Aucilla,” author and Thomasville resident R.C. Balfour III, said the river’s name translates into Many Faces. One familiar with this river would agree that is an apt name. The Aucilla goes underground in several places but surfaces for good near the coast of Florida at Nutall Rise before continuing its flow into the shallow, grassy Apalachee Bay. The mouth of the river is about 70 miles from the Georgia line, and for years the drive has been worth it for many Georgia anglers. On most days, Georgia tags outnumber Florida tags on the trucks at the boat ramp.
The Aucilla is famous in several circles for different reasons. For years, it has been recognized as an awesome redfish and trout fishery, particularly in the winter. The fish migrate off the grass flats found in the bay to the deeper holes in the river because the water temperature is warmer there. Often overlooked, however, is the fishing found here the rest of the year.
Redfish use the river as a nursery, and slot-sized reds can be caught near the creek mouths and oyster bars found just off the main river in the spring and fall. The Florida slot for keeper redfish, or red drum, is not less than 18 inches and no more than 27 inches total length. The Aucilla is in the Northwest Red Drum Zone, where the limit it oneper person per day.
Speckled trout and flounder can be found, too, and a variety of baits are often in play for these fish. Live shrimp on the bottom, suspending twitch baits, and scented plastic imitations are all productive. The grass flats of Apalachee Bay begin at the mouth of the river and explode with life in the spring. In addition to the trout and redfish, the Spanish mackerel come back, the rock bass are there, and occasionally a hard-fighting blue fish will hit.
During the spring, it is an awesome time to go back up the river near where it surfaces at Nutall Rise to catch a mess of bream. Crickets, worms and Beetle Spins are all effective for bream up the river.
During the warmer summer months, the best area to fish is the enormous grass flats near the mouth of the river. The flats hold all manner of species, but the most willing to bite in the summer will be the speckled trout. Gulp! Jerk Shad and Gulp! Shrimp are common and effective baits.
If you’re looking for fun action, big schools of ladyfish are quite common around the mouth of the Aucilla. If ladyfish are around, they will bite almost anything, and they provide a great fight.
The best way to fish these flats in the summer is with a 7- to 7 1/2-foot spinning rod with 15– to 20-lb. braid. The water can get pretty clear here, so I will often use a fluorocarbon leader anywhere from 18 to 24 inches in length. I prefer to drift the flats with the wind until I start getting bites. I will drift until I’m no longer getting bites, and then repeat the process in the same spot.
Redfish can still be found in the creeks off of the main river in the summer. I will pull to a likely looking spot, something with structure and deeper water nearby, and anchor the boat. I’ll fish on the bottom with as light of a weight as I can. Live shrimp, cut mullet, cut ladyfish and Gulp! Shrimp are all good baits for redfish around these creeks.
For one looking for a guided trip on the Aucilla River, there is local legend J.R. Walker. In addition to guiding, J.R. also owns the Aucilla River Store on Highway 98 just west of the river. He is an expert on the river, its fish and how to catch them.
“I think the No. 1 lure here is the MirrOlure Catch 2000 in red and white,” J.R. said.
He also likes Gulp! Jerk Shad on a light jig head, either 1/8- or 1/16-oz.
“If you use a heavier jig head than that, you can’t work it because it gets hung up in the rocks,” J.R. said.
For those wishing to book a trip with J.R., just call the store at (850) 584-4535.
For anglers hoping for a shot at catching the Aucilla’s saltwater species, the best ramp to launch out from is the ramp off of Mandalay Road south of Highway 98, near the town of Lamont.
There are several ramps north of Highway 98 in varying degrees of repair that would be better to launch from for freshwater species.
Small boats are better suited for this river than bigger rigs. There are many limestone rocks that have claimed the foot off of outboards over the years.
The closer to the mouth one is, the bigger the boat can be, but close attention has to be paid to the rocks and tides.
Of course, a non-resident Florida fishing license is required for out-of-state anglers. A one-year non-resident license is $47. They do have three-day and seven-day licenses that are cheaper, but it is important to decide which species you would like to target. If you would like to go after both freshwater and saltwater, then you would need to get both a freshwater and a saltwater license, and both are $47 each.
Fisherman are not the only ones attracted to this special river. Since the late 1970s, fossils of long extinct mammals have been found here, such as the elephant-like mastodon. Additionally, artifacts of early humans have been located in the sink holes of the river.
For years, evidence found on the Aucilla River has pointed toward our long-held assumptions about how long man has been on this continent being incorrect.
Thanks in large part to Dr. Jessi Halligan, an assistant professor of anthropology at Florida State, conclusive proof has finally been found. While exploring the Page-Ladson sinkhole of the Aucilla River, an artifact called a bifacial stone knife was found and dated to 14,550 years ago.
“It’s a stone tool that has marks from people shaping it on both sides,” Dr. Halligan said.
This proves people were in the area hundreds of years before originally believed. It would not have been possible for these people to have crossed over from Asia via the Bearing Land Bridge due to the climate then, so where did these people come from? There are several theories about how these people populated North America, but right now there is not enough science to back up the theories. Dr. Halligan advised that part of the problem is that the coastline has receded several miles since then, putting what could be more archeological sites at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. However, research will continue at the Page-Ladson site, as well as at other sink holes along the Aucilla.
“It’s a fascinating place. We’ve found fossils of paleo llamas, horses and of course mastadons,” Dr. Halligan said.
Another great reason to visit the Aucilla River is the sheer wildness of the place. Unlike much of Florida, this area has escaped commercial development, giving it a feel of Old Florida. It looks similar to what I would imagine the Spanish saw as they first explored the state. Much of the surrounding land is public and protected, allowing for abundant wildlife. This is a great river to canoe or kayak. It is shallow with numerous rocks and other obstructions that make it impractical for jet skis or fast-running boats.
For pleasure paddling, fishing or for scientific study, the Aucilla River is an important place to many. There are lots of similarly special places in Georgia, but for those willing to travel a few extra miles, the Aucilla is definitely worth it. The fishing here is good, and the scenery will take your breath away.